Whether you know it or not, you hear Curtis Mayfield’s influence every day.
Sure, his grooves have been endlessly sampled, but the gorgeous soul music he created, especially after he split with the Impressions, the groundbreaking group, whose unique blend of gospel and soul made him famous, have inspired countless artists, from Paul Weller and Johnny Marr to Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar.
“I discovered Curtis Mayfield in the 1970s, and his music really opened my mind as to what was possible, rhythmically and stylistically,” Paul Weller, who has covered the legend several times over the years, most notably in the waning days of The Jam, once told me. “Before that I’d been listening to The Beatles and The Who and Small Faces, but this was like getting inspiration right from the source.”
“I always hear his influence,” Altheida Mayfield, the widow of the late icon, who died in 1999, nine years after being paralyzed in an onstage accident during a concert in Brooklyn, New York, says of her husband’s legacy. “I’ve talked to a lot of great artists who were influenced by him. But he was always an inspiration to other artists, all the way back to Jimi Hendrix. Jimi wanted to be just like Curtis. That’s why he played a Fender Stratocaster, just like Curtis.”
Known as the “Gentle Genius,” Mayfield was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a member of The Impressions and as a solo artist. It’s that solo work that is getting fresh attention as the result of the re-release of remastered versions of his first four studio albums, Curtis (1970), Roots (1971), Back to the World (1973) and Sweet Exorcist (1974) as Keep On Keeping On: Curtis Mayfield Studio Albums 1970-1974, out now from Rhino.
“It was a big step for him to move away from the Impressions and stand on his own,” Mayfield recalls. “These to me are some of the best albums that he made during his career. My favorite is Curtis, but all four of them were great albums. This was a time after he’d stepped out on his own, away from the Impressions, and decided to do his own thing. And I think he did a great job of saying what he needed to say.”
Mayfield was just 14 years old when he joined The Impressions in 1956. Over the next decade and a half he scored countless hits with them, including “Gypsy Woman,” “It’s All Right” and “People Get Ready,” the worldwide smash and indisputable classic.
Mayfield also remembers how remarkable her husband’s gifts and drive were, even when he was just a teenager.
“You don’t hear of a group coming back after the leader has left,” Mayfield says, of the days immediately after Jerry Butler, the original lead singer of the Impressions, left, when Curtis Mayfield was just a teenager. “But you have this little kid, who was playing guitar at the back of the Impressions, who was determined that he was going to get that group back out there. I always tell everybody, I lived in the suburbs of Chicago, and when (the group’s first post-Butler hit) “Gypsy Woman” hit, it was almost like the whole town celebrated.
“The Impressions were back! We were so proud of the simple fact that Curtis had stepped over that barrier. Because hearing a group whose lead singer had left, and that group coming right back, that was an accomplishment in itself, especially back in those days.”
So it was a bold move, to be sure, for Mayfield to leave a chart-topping group, and strike out on his own as a solo artist.
“He’d made up his mind,” Mayfield recalls of the days when her husband left the Impressions. “That was a huge step, because they were successful. But he took that chance and stepped out there. That was a big move, but he did a lot of things that were a little daring, but he never seemed scared about any of it. He had a nonchalant personality with him. Sort of like, “I’m gonna try it and see if I can make it.” That was it. And he usually pulled it off.”
In 1970, Mayfield left the Impressions, and launched his solo career with his debut album, Curtis. It reached the Billboard Top 20 and went gold, on the back of hits like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go,” and “Move On Up.” Released on Mayfield’s own Curtom label, the album’s potent combination of socially conscious lyrics and hybrid soul/funk music blaze a trail for later albums, including Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions.
“One of the reasons was that Curtis started his own label,” Mayfield says, recollecting how her husband began Curtom Records, his own label, and why she believes her husband’s legacy therefore doesn’t match those of some of his better-known contemporaries. “Big record companies usually step up and get their artists out there, and the artist has to live up to the hype. Curtis, having his own label, he wasn’t going to talk about himself, so he never actually stood up to talk say, “Here I am, this is me.” That just wasn’t Curtis. As a result, he didn’t get that hype that other artists did. Also, Marvin and Stevie were coming from Motown, and Motown, although they did have some great artists to hype up, really knew how to make people stars. So that’s kept Curtis sort of low key.”
She also has a few favorite tracks from the album, the oft-overlooked “The Makings of You,” and “Give It Up.”
“I once saw Gladys Knight perform “The Makings of You” with an orchestra, and that’s when I realized how pretty Curtis’ songs were,” Mayfield says. “He had a lot of songs that I could call my favorite, but “Give it Up” is another one from Curtis that I think is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It just never really made it out there and caught on. But I think he really peaked in singing that. You can almost hear him as though he’s in the room. And if you’re really listening to Curtis, you’ll notice that most of his songs, even though it’s often in little ways, revolve around something spiritual, as it does here, and I love that. But as nice as those two songs were, they were never pushed, so it’s nice to think that — with this box set — folks might get to hear them who missed them.”
Roots, Mayfield’s 1971 follow-up album, which featured “Get Down,” “Beautiful Brother Of Mine” and “We Got To Have Peace,” built on the success of Curtis, and led directly to his solo breakthrough, the soundtrack to the 1972 film Super Fly.
“Curtis seemed to take things with stride,” Mayfield recalls of her seemingly unflappable husband. “He got very busy, and became a very big star after Super Fly, but he just kept working and creating. That’s just how he was. His music was his life.”
Mayfield released his third solo record, Back to the World, in 1973. Featuring epic tracks like “Future Shock,” “Can’t Say Nothin'” and “If I Were Only A Child Again,” it topped the R&B Albums chart.
Altheida Mayfield isn’t surprised that the socio-political messages peppered throughout the albums, and all of Curtis Mayfield’s work, feel as relevant today as they were back in the 1970s.
“History repeats itself,” she says with a sigh. “If you go back, from the beginning of time, you’ll notice that history always repeats itself. It can be in a different form, but it’s still the same thing over and over again. I think we as people here on this planet, we just don’t learn. So with everything that’s happening in 2019, it’s not surprising to me that what Curtis was saying in 1971, or 1974, or whenever, still feels relevant today. Of course, if he was here, he probably would be still sitting there, writing in a different form, but still that things need to change, because everything that happened back then, it’s happening all over again.”
“Sweet Exorcist,” from 1974 and the final album included in Keep On Keeping On, was yet another smash, reaching #2 on the Top R&B Albums chart. Two singles, the title track and “Kung Fu,” are undeniable highlights, strains of which you can still hear in music today.
“Curtis once said, ‘If you started from the beginning, and you listened to all my songs, all the way from the beginning until I was injured, you would know my whole life story,’” Mayfield recalls of her husband reflecting on the body of work represented on Keep On Keeping On.
“Because his songs were his life. He wrote about the experiences of what he was going through. He wrote about the things that he saw. Curtis came up very, very poor. So the things that he saw in the streets, and things that bothered him, made him a very deep thinker. Where other people wouldn’t really realize or really notice in their heart the world and what was going on around him, he did. And he was very, very sensitive about it. So these songs were him, put down on paper. Because there was always something going on in his life, so he always had something to write about. He once told me he didn’t know where the music came from, but that the music was just there, going through him. It was like something that he just couldn’t stop.
“It was a gift, because he was born with it inside him. And while it was inside of him, he had to let it out. That’s why the songs kept flowing.”